(To be sure that this is clear, here I am posting about my personal experience with Beeminder, and not as someone who works for Beeminder, insofar as that is separable – obviously working for Beeminder informs my outlook.)
Sure, Beeminder’s a blunt instrument in some ways. I would argue though that it’s not that there isn’t a cost to deciding not to do your goal for whatever reason, including reasons that are about the way you want to live your life. There is a cost: the thing that’s important to you for whatever reason (long-term health, meeting your work goals, learning a new language, etc) doesn’t get done – and the more often you make that trade-off, the further off your ultimate goal becomes. Whether that’s by your choice or not, or whether that’s how you want to live your life or not, is pretty immaterial – it’s a fact. Beeminder provides the tools to allow one to plan ahead for that kind of thing (the 7-day akrasia horizon), so that one is able to offset that cost or write it off in a less akratic way, rather than being motivated by one’s immediate wants.
It’s not like I’m saying that I want to commit to studying on a Saturday when Wales is playing Australia and I’ve planned to see my parents to watch the game and have dinner (ahem). Obviously spending time with my parents is something I love, also a priority I want to have in my life, and not something I’d want to be punished for doing. Obviously what I want out of life is to spend time with those I care about, watch the rugby game, and eat my dad’s cooking.
When I set up the goal, I never intended to derail on this goal because the section on respiratory viruses is surprisingly long and I didn’t realise I couldn’t finish that in my usual Monday-Friday sessions. That’s something I could only discover by working through the course. It’s not even that I’m saying it’s more important than my parents. (It probably is more important than the Wales v Australia game, admittedly.)
That doesn’t mean it’s unfair for that situation to occur now. That’s kinda the deal with Beeminder. Literally nothing is stopping me deciding that I’m not going to study – Beeminder is in no way stopping me from doing the stuff that makes my life enjoyable. I’ll have to pay $5, to remind me that it’s not a costless choice. That allows me to make the decision a little less deluded that “it won’t hurt” to skip just one day of studying. It will hurt, but it’s the first time I’ve ever skipped and only costs $5. That’s okay, then, if that’s what I choose. It won’t hurt my long-term goal too much.
If it were $90 because I’ve been derailing again and again, that’d tell me something about how far behind I’m getting, and it’d make it clear that it’s probably more important that I don’t miss it again.
Not everything is as strictly time-bound as studying. The consequences if I skip it over and over are much more apparent than the consequences for deciding I don’t want to work out, for example. Nonetheless, the consequences for the latter still exist. The whole reason behind Beeminder is that it makes the cost of deciding not to do your goal visible and emotive. It doesn’t actually stop you from making decisions about how you prefer to spend your life on the spur of the moment, whether those decisions are akratic or not. It just makes them more visible to you: what you do with that information is your choice.
For people who want more flexibility, there are ways to do that. One way is to set your rate realistically rather than aspirationally. If you know you’ll want to skip the goal one day every two weeks, on average, then you can set your rate to 6.5/7 per day. Over two weeks, you’ll only have to work for 13 days, and you’ll have that extra day free.
Another way (which I use under different circumstances) is to carry extra buffer; you can always add back to it when you’ve had to use it by either doing enough to catch up, or by adding a break, so I use this for goals where I think there’s little cost to skipping a day here or there. And yet another way is to set your goal in such a way that you can work ahead when you want to skip it.
And another way is to spend time creating your goals to create a “steppy” effect (it’s not simple and easy to do right now, though it may eventually be). My studying goals are steppy goals: I need to get a certain amount done per week, but the rate I do that is up to me. That works when you can set a target you want to reach by a certain date, and you can trust yourself to do it, and a day or two off doesn’t hurt as long as you catch up within the time period. When I was suddenly sick a couple of weeks ago, I could just skip my studying goal for those days, because the goal wasn’t due until the weekend… and then I just caught up later in the week.
Plus of course I can get a break on any goal I like by planning ahead, whenever I want. Given that I’m an adult with my own home, own means of transport, own finances, etc, there are few things I can be compelled to do and most of my actions are my responsibility.
Clearly this doesn’t satisfy all members of Beeminder, and with my Support Czar Hat on I take notes when this comes up… but Beeminder was designed this way for good reasons that I appreciate as an individual who uses the site. Nothing works for everybody, alas, and things that might make a service valuable for a given use-case actually break it for others. So it goes!